Dr David Johnson

Musician, composer and musicologist

Born: 27 October, 1942, in Edinburgh.

Died: 30 March, 2009, in Edinburgh, aged 66.

DR DAVID Johnson was one of Scotland's leading musicologists, a fine composer and all-round musician, a splendid eccentric, an excellent communicator and a delightful and entertaining companion. His untimely death is a real blow to Scottish culture as a whole, never mind to those whose interests are more particularly musical, for his research went far beyond matters musicological, and his own music was both intellectually satisfying and thoroughly approachable.

David Charles Johnson was the eldest son of Sir Ronald and Lady Johnson. Both his parents were musical, as was the whole family, and he composed several pieces for trumpet for his late brother, Matthew. He studied at the University of Aberdeen, and moved on to St John's College, Cambridge, where he completed a doctoral thesis, published in 1972 as Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century. The cumbersome title belied the contents, for it was rightly described as providing "an analysis of quite unusual clarity and intellectual power".

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It was followed by his much-used and highly valued Scottish Fiddle Music in the 18th Century, in which he published his own editions of a number of seminal works for fiddle, along with full annotations, historical background and perceptive comment. Chamber Music of Eighteenth-Century Scotland, for the Musica Scotica series, appeared shortly afterwards, containing his own editions of no less than 27 pieces.

These (and many other) editions brought to light wonderful music that was little known, and which he promoted through his own McGibbon Ensemble, and with the production of recordings which likewise broke new ground. He also directed two challenging CDs on The Art of Robert Burns, which aimed to "present Burns' songs, once more, as they were known to his 18th-century contemporaries".

As a music historian, Johnson had a lively and humane style. Academic requirements were well satisfied, but he was as happy to use anecdote to illustrate a point as he was to analyse the structure of a piece or expose its indebtedness to some other composer.

His scholarship was ground-breaking and, although he was rightly protective of his material, he was open-handed with his advice. His dry giggle at the end of the telephone, when generously answering some query, was one of the delights of scholarship and I shall miss his company.

Now and again we fell out over silly things, as he did with others; but he was the most forgivable of characters, and he had plenty of forgiving to do himself.

Life is not easy for freelance scholars such as Johnson. His achievements were made, for the most part, in the face of many difficulties, financial and otherwise, and for all that his work was admired and relied upon, his reward was small and his survival in his chosen and vital field was a courageous one. He had to sustain that courage over decades, as a musician and as a single parent.

He did not fit the mould. Sometimes he dressed eccentrically; his accent was more upper than working class, which can be a disadvantage in Scotland; he openly cherished the bawdy which lies behind much of the music he studied, and he pointed out what was not always welcome – that many of Scotland's best-known traditional musicians were classically trained or deeply involved with and enamoured of classical music.

As a composer, he has received nothing like the credit he deserves. His output was wide-ranging and includes five operas, some characteristically satirising commercial greed. But perhaps his greatest achievement in that genre was Thomas the Rhymer. It is many years since it had a hearing, but its mystical subject matter was reflected in music full of character and beauty.

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The same can be said of his Twelve Preludes and Fugues. Their clarity and variety of style are matched by technical mastery of counterpoint. But they are far from dry. Wit, anger, strength and sensitivity all find a place in this profoundly accomplished music. In God, Man and the Animals – settings of his own words inspired by one of the Grimm fairytales – there is also great tenderness.

Johnson was highly-strung, smoked incessantly, and was as ready as any Scot to pooh-pooh sentiment. But his heart was in the right place, and it is in his music that one can truly hear what went on in that most protected part of his being.

Johnson's work was not done merely for himself, but so that we should not be deprived of a cultural inheritance which had been too readily ignored. In this, as in so many aspects of his life, he was true to that sense of obligation to society which has been a keystone of Scottish culture in our better days. It is a particular sadness to me that he did not live to receive the sort of honours that were his due from that society, and which would have thoroughly tickled his fancy. We are all profoundly in his debt.

He is survived by his brother Paul, his son, Martin, and three grandchildren


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